- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A crime bill that asks the D.C. Council to tighten up a mix of public safety laws includes provisions that strike at the heart of public demonstrations — a frequent and common practice in the nation’s capital taken to new levels during the Occupy D.C. protest.

Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown and council member Phil Mendelson introduced the multifaceted bill on Jan. 4.

To the casual observer, the bill appears to broaden powers vested in an 1892 law allowing police to clamp down on disorderly conduct in public spaces. The law expands a section on impediments along sidewalks to include a “park or reservation” and notes that an “enclosure” can include areas inside and outside of public buildings, such as the U.S. Capitol.

It also says people cannot remain in, or return to, a demonstration area after they have been instructed by law enforcement to leave and clarifies that people can be penalized for acting alone or in concert with others.

But Mr. Mendelson said the high-profile turmoil around the city in recent months — part of a nationwide protest against corporate greed and certain economic policies — is not the issue.

The bill, he said, hits on another enduring topic in the District — who should prosecute crimes committed in a city that is both the seat of the federal government and home to about 600,000 residents.

“I don’t think there’s anything nefarious in it with regards to Occupy D.C.,” said Mr. Mendelson, at-large Democrat and chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary.

The bill, which was referred to Mr. Mendelson’s committee, is part of a wish-list of legal revisions submitted to the council by the U.S. Attorney for the District. Besides disorderly conduct — a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail — the bill includes changes to laws concerning obscene gestures to children and contraband sneaked into city jails.

Mr. Mendelson said changes in 2010 to the city’s disorderly conduct laws had the unintended effect of burdening the U.S. Attorney’s Office with misdemeanor cases relating to people arrested for disruptions inside public buildings, because the relevant statutes that govern those situations fell on federal prosecutors’ shoulders.

Art Spitzer, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in the District, said the 2010 changes were supposed to prevent city police officers from using disorderly conduct as a catch-all offense to arrest protesters who flouted their authority, or engaged in what he called “contempt of cop.”

“No one intended to transfer the prosecution power from the D.C. attorney general to the U.S. attorney,” Mr. Spitzer said.

Federal prosecutors are generally responsible for weightier crimes in the District, and “disorderly conduct has never been viewed as a serious crime,” he said.

D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan said Tuesday his office is “happy to take on any additional responsibilities.”

Mr. Spitzer said the ACLU has collaborated with the council and sees no problem with treating people who block doorways to a public building the same way as those who impede sidewalks.

“We just want to make sure there are no hidden surprises,” he said of the legislation.